What's In Your Bag — Dan Wong
The trend of snooping around in people’s bags never gets old. If you grew up reading the now-defunct Urban Magazine (given out with Thursday issues of The Straits Times), you would be familiar with the ‘What’s in my Bag’ feature on the back of every issue. The person featured on the page varied every week - there were actors, professional athletes, designers, and the list goes on.
Similarly, the ‘What’s in Your Bag?’ series on the BooksActually blog will feature various individuals from Singapore’s arts scene, hopefully providing some insight into what being an artist is like.
Dan Wong is a digital illustrator and artist commonly known for his political and satirical artworks, as well as helming A Good Citizen, an art collective that started as a movement late 2012 where artists stepped up and entered the realm of social and political commentary. Dan’s personal works can be found on his website, https://danwong.carbonmade.com/.
Hi Dan, tell us more about yourself!
My name is Dan Wong, I’m a commercial illustrator by day and fine artist by night. So yes, my day job is very boring because I draw what people tell me to do, but my night job is more interesting because draw whatever I want to draw. My personal art is heavily centred around social, political, and cultural affairs. Through my art I like to make fun of people, of Singapore’s current circumstances, institutions of power, the incumbent, and sometimes even the opposition if they say or do silly or laugh-worthy things.
When I was a young boy I was a fierce keyboard warrior and would often express myself in a childish manner online. That was until I started expressing myself more through my illustrations, which was a better medium. Hopefully. And of course, by this I mean I would vandalise toilets and desks in school, draw naughty things on public cubicles - but I did those in pencil so the cleaners wouldn’t have such a hard time wiping them away - and continued to do so even when I was serving in the army.
What do you love most about your work?
Hmm… Do I love it? Yeah I guess I do, sometimes. I only feel satisfied and happy when my work is exhibited in a gallery or put up online, and when people engage with it. Those are the few times I actually feel like my work is done. I incorporate a lot of detail and hidden stories in my art, so it’s always nice when someone takes the time to take it all in or point out something that relates to them. I dont care if its positive or negative criticism - the worst thing you can do to Dan Wong is to walk past my work like it’s not there at all and be indifferent towards my work, haha.
My work is kind of funny - especially satirical art pieces, because sometimes audience reactions differ drastically on virtual and physical platforms. For example this piece, ‘Myopic Endemic’ (2014), for over 100 likes and reactions online, but it was flagged in the news and garnered disapproval in the press for, well, using the Singapore flag. Another one, a public exhibition, ‘Mural @ Marina South Pier (In collaboration with SCYA)’ I did for the LTA, got very few reactions online but was highlighted and given a full-blown article in the papers.
Myopic Endemic, 2014
Which art medium(s) do you engage with the most and why?
All of my work is usually digitalised, so I use Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, and I do my digital sketches work on my Wacom pad.
What’s in your bag?
*Dan happily empties all the contents of his bag onto the table, laughing at dirty old receipts and bits of crushed paper, then extends an invitation to photograph these items*
Okay but you've got to take everything, including the bits of rubbish and I don’t even know what this is. It must be authentic, hahaha.
Of all the items in your backpack, is there a specific item that holds a special meaning?
So there’s this piece of paper, and this is Marc Nair’s poem, The Auguries of Modern Innocence. This poem is a contemporary spin on the original poem, The Auguries of Innocence by William Blake. This was from a meeting we had where several artists like myself were invited to put our own artistic interpretations to this poem, and these art pieces were exhibited at The Arts House for some time until April.
Who are your favourite artists or art inspirations and why?
Oh dear this is a difficult one. There are so many because I take my inspiration from anywhere. I deconstruct the artwork that I like and take certain elements, like attention to detail, or linework, or style, and try to see where I can adopt them into my work. But where local inspiration is concerned, I especially love the work of Pok Pok And Away for her very detailed illustrations. It’s similar to what I try to do, which is to always include a tiny narrative in a giant overarching narrative. I’m also a big fan of AnnGee Neo for her commercial stuff. She has some very lovely lines in her artwork. Miel and Mightyellow, who does some interesting flowers with a macabre twist. Also, I really like Yellow Mushmallow for her very nice child-like style. Illustrations like hers look simple but they really are not as easy to do, and in a way I kind of envy the way artists like her can create things like that, because they have a kind of honest child-like quality in them that a lot of us don’t have or cannot find anymore. They’re the type of illustrations that you simply can’t do it if you don't have it in you.
Tell us more about your creative process.
Actually it’s funny because a lot of my creative process comes about because people tell me what to do and I hate what I'm doing so I’ll do the exact opposite of that the brief wants me to do. Complete subversion. Then from that extreme I’ll take what I have an trim and mould it down into something a little more acceptable that can be put up, haha.
Dire Straits, 2015
Whom or what do you turn to for inspiration when having a dry spell?
I started out copying from my favourite games like ‘Final Fantasy’, and also from game-art books like the ‘Warhammer’ series and ‘Metal Gear Solid’. I actually go to Japan specially to buy these books. But when I’m having a dry spell now I turn to pop culture, actually. That’s the simplest and most honest truth haha. So I go onto websites like Reddit, Tumblr, 4chan, and your regular art websites like ArtStation, DeviantArt, and Pixiv.
Either that, or I head down to bookstores. I go to Kinokuniya and pick up art books, and look for inspiration and idea there. I find it helpful to go back to my younger days of having only these art books as inspiration, because back then you wouldn’t be able to find pdfs on the internet as easily, so exploring art used to be just the very physical experience of going to bookstores like Borders and asking the people at the counter to unwrap these books from their plastic, then standing there for the longest time browsing through and then sheepishly handing the book back to them without buying anything. But even now, standing there with an open art book feels comfortable, like I’m back in a more comfortable space where I originally used to get all my inspiration a few years ago. But other than that, my guilty pleasure is also watching cringe videos or street fight on youtube. Yeah, pop culture can actually be very helpful hahaha.
What’s an artistic exploration or project that you’ve always wanted to try out but never got the chance to?
Hmm. Despite my more ‘cheeky’ drawings, nobody’s ever asked me to draw anything with more pornographic themes. Yeah I think I’d like to do something pornographic but tasteful - kind of like Tumblr porn. In everything I do there usually has to be a narrative behind it, so even when dealing with pornographic themes, I’d like my work to be to be used for something. For example it can be can be used in a book to accompany text, like one of those sex-education comics, or something that is used to air views on sexual stigma. So yes. It would be fun to do something with sex but most importantly, I want it to be done in a tasteful way that doesn’t come across as crass or rude.
You do a lot of art centred around nudity, and your work is largely representative of all races and body types. Do you particularly make it a point to do this?
Yes of course I do. I really dislike it when artists draw only one type of body or base their artwork around only one race. I’m usually very careful about racial representation especially in the art I do about Singapore, and I’m careful to include different skin colours especially in my nude drawings. Like in this piece, ‘Emmartee' (2013), I was very deliberate about body type and racial representation. I mean even for Chinese people, not all Chinese people have the same skin tone. Details like that are very important to me. And I really do encourage more fellow artists to do more nude drawings, and be to careful about representations in social groups. That way, you also learn to be more observant.
Why did you start out doing what you do, and why are you still doing it?
I started doing art - all my naughty vandalism - because I wanted the attention when I was younger. I realised that if you drew obscene pictures especially when you’re younger, like in secondary school, you get a very strong reaction. That was what I wanted. Now I do it because I can’t think of a better way to express myself and what I want to say. I’m also more familiar with the medium of illustration so it’s more effective to do this.
I’m continuing to do this because of the support of the fans of A Good Citizen and people in general who enjoy our work. Yes. I love them.
What are you working on at the moment?
The work in progress is a personal art exhibition about the army. I’ve recently ended my NS Reservist term so I think this would be an interesting thing to do. I’m gathering and looking for collaborators and artists who feel strongly about NS, so you must really love or hate the army. We will then put up an exhibition with Art Blovk featuring different artists who use different mediums to express their views on National Service and the army. This will probably go on in the month of August this year, so keep a lookout!
Interviewed by: Cheryl Tan, May 2018